Understanding Different Treatment Types: What is Immunotherapy?

If you have a cancer diagnosis, you may have heard the word “immunotherapy” during your oncology visits. Immunotherapy medications are often given in combination with chemotherapy drugs. However, they can be given alone or in combination with radiation and/or surgery. 

What is Immunotherapy? 

Before diving into the details of immunotherapy, it is important to understand how the immune system works. The immune system is made up of cells, organs, and lymph tissue that help fight infections or diseases. Because cancer cells are seen as abnormal by our immune system, our immune cells will try to kill the cancer cells that are seen. However, some cancer cells can hide and make it difficult for our immune system to see them as bad.  

Immunotherapy works by stimulating the body’s immune system and natural immune defenses to fight against and attack cancer cells. Immunotherapy can help the immune system to see and attack cancer cells more effectively. 

Immunotherapy can be given in a few different forms: 

  • Infusion through an IV 

  • A pill 

  • As a topical cream 

  • Directly into your bladder through a urinary catheter 

The method in which your immunotherapy is given will depend on your cancer. 

How is Immunotherapy Used? 

Immunotherapy is often used in combination treatments with chemotherapy. It can also be given before or after radiation therapy treatments to help prevent or slow the growth of cancer cells. Certain cancers can have genetic details that make them more likely to be stopped from growing or killed by immunotherapy treatment. Because immunotherapy is a newer type of treatment, you may see a lot of clinical studies testing how effective these drugs are at different stages of cancer.  

Questions to Ask Your Oncologist 

  • What immunotherapy drugs will I be receiving? 

  • Will this be given in combination with chemotherapy? 

  • What are the most common side effects? 

  • Are there any days or time frames I should expect these side effects? 

  • When should I call your office with concerns? 

  • How often is my treatment given? 

  • Are there any special precautions to take while on my immunotherapy regimen?